Frontline: Secrets of the Vatican

Frontline: Secrets of the Vatican (PBS)

We are pleased to present the New Orleans Times Picayune’s recent Q and A with Jason Berry, co-producer of this PBS Frontline special.
— Kristine Ward, Chair, National Survivor Advocates Coalition

Dave Walker, | The Times-Picayune By Dave Walker, | The Times-PicayuneThe Times-Picayune

Tuesday’s (Feb. 25) episode of PBS’ “Frontline” unravels “Secrets of the Vatican” in a spellbinding 90-minute episode airing at 8 p.m. on WYES. New Orleans author Jason Berry (“Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” “Vows of Silence,” “Render Unto Rome”) is co-producer of the episode, which details some of the issues — clergy sex abuse, corruption at the Vatican Bank, the Vatileaks corruption exposes — that scandalized Benedict XVI’s papacy.

It also paints a grim picture of the challenges facing Benedict’s successor, Pope Francis.

Berry’s investigative reporting of the Catholic Church dates to 1992’s “Lead Us Not Into Temptation,” the first extensive account of sexual abuse of children by priests. His 2004 book “Vows of Silence,” written with co-author Gerald Renner, explored the sexual abuses of Mexican priest and Legion of Christ founder Marcial Maciel, and was also adapted into a documentary film of the same title. In 2011’s “Render Unto Rome,” Berry, a practicing Catholic, critically examined the church’s handling of its finances. Berry was also interviewed for Alex Gibney’s documentary “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” which detailed alleged sexual abuse by Lawrence Murphy, a priest at Milwaukee’s St. John’s School for the Deaf. “Mea Maxima Culpa” aired last year on HBO.

Here’s an edited email Q&A with Berry about Tuesday’s “Frontline: Secrets of the Vatican:”

Q: You’re credited as co-producer. What was your role? When did the work start? Was the final product what the project set out to be?

A: “Frontline” chose a renowned English director, Antony Thomas. One of the researchers contacted me about the time of the papal conclave last March. She’d seen an interview I did at St. Peter’s Square on the BBC, and had read my book “Render unto Rome.” She sent some questions, and we spoke by phone. Antony contacted me in early July and asked me to collaborate with him. He wanted my help on the sequence about Fr. Maciel and on episodes to film in the U.S. I sent a memo on that, outlining key American stories, how they connected to the Vatican episodes Antony’s team had researched.

I spent most of July and August going back and forth with him on research and scenario issues. We met in Boston in late August with the crew, filmed there, in Connecticut, New York and Milwaukee over several weeks. As Antony got into the editing several weeks later we had continuous emails and calls right up to the fine-cut edit last week. The film does closely track his treatment, though several strands had to be cut. This often happens in documentaries even with powerful material.

What’s new here? What’s new here for viewers familiar with your work and the coverage by others of these issues? What’s new here for people who haven’t followed the story?

Well, the film takes viewers into the Vatican’s baroque internal dynamics, and the infighting under Pope Benedict that exploded in the Vatican Bank and Vatileaks scandals. No TV network outside of Italy has covered those complex stories in much detail, and few newspapers in much depth. Viewers will get a clear story of the last pope betrayed by his own bureaucracy. Antony’s treatment of the gay priest culture in the Vatican — an explosive topic to be sure — is nuanced and even-handed, certainly not homophobic. The early episodes that deal with the Maciel case, and the Milwaukee archdiocesan bankruptcy, to stave off abuse victims’ claims, have gotten media attention as you note, but I think our handling of the people enmeshed in these numbing dramas will convey the scope of the crisis, all the way back to Rome. These issues are continuing, though daily media coverage tends to wax and wane.

In your experience, are there still Catholics who would be surprised by the stories addressed in this “Frontline” – the sexual abuse, the Vatican corruption, the accounting and legal thuggery? Is there a sequence you would single out as most powerful?

Many Catholics want these issues to go away. I certainly do. But when you see the stories of people in the middle of the mire, right there on television, it has a striking immediacy. Yes, I think some people will be surprised by what the Vatican internal culture is like and the callous treatment of victims in Milwaukee. The abuse cover-ups will continue in the legal arena until the Vatican creates its own legal system closer to Western jurisprudence. As for powerful sequences, the Vatican Bank section is documentary narrative at its best; but I suspect the Milwaukee story will linger long in people’s minds.

Jason archives

The first-hand accounts of abuse in this film reminded me of “Mea Maxima Culpa.” What has been the reaction to your participation in that project? What kinds of things do you hear from people about your work, both in print and in documentaries?

As for “Mea Maximan Culpa,” Alex Gibney wove the Maciel story into a larger report on the Vatican’s role in the abuse crisis; Alex is a remarkable filmmaker and treated me well in my participation. I sense that most people who saw that film felt, as I do, that his handling of the deaf men in Wisconsin gave a terrible beauty to that account of the trampling of innocence. I did hear from people about the segment I was in, one strand among many.

Antony took a different approach in the Legion sequence, giving focus to Maciel’s son, Raul. I hired a cameraman and interviewed Raul several years ago when he was in America, after my own film, “Vows of Silence” was in distribution, thinking I might somehow update it. Instead, he speaks in this film. Every time I meet someone like Raul, I think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

I suspect that the responses to “Secrets of the Vatican” will echo what I’ve heard in the past — people expressing surprise, regret, support or praise for getting the story out there. I don’t get many personal attacks any more. Even archconservatives tend to recognize that the problem is the power structure. When the Legion of Christ disclosed that their late founder, Maciel, had children in 2009, I received apologies from several Legion insiders. That surprised me, given how aggressively they had attacked me, and my late coauthor Gerald Renner, on the “Vows of Silence” book. I wish Renner, a prince of a friend, had been around to receive those apologies.

What is it like when work you have done over many years is adapted by other documentarians?

I’ve learned not to be too subjective when professionals of high caliber want to use my work. You have to give the other director his latitude. A book can go many fathoms deeper. A film has to synthesize and spotlight certain people, certain strands. Tim Watson of Ariel Montage in New Orleans was my editor on “Vows of Silence.” We were practically joined at the hip the last six months before the 2008 launch. Tim knows the Maciel story inside-out, and often sends me news items that I haven’t seen. When films of this kind come along he and I get together for a debriefing, usually with bourbon. Film reaches so many more people than the printed word, and if a given documentary is in the right hands, you learn not to worry, despite the surprises that pop up in any production. Working with Antony Thomas, I must say, was a superb experience. He’s a true artist of nonfiction filmmaking. His Darwin film (“Questioning Darwin”) has been airing on HBO the last week or so.

Does the fact that Francis is an “outsider” give you hope for reform? Or the opposite? There are some ominous concluding notes in this film. Do you actually fear for his safety?

I do have hope for Francis. He is a major presence on the international stage, saying things no president or prime minister will about the gross inequities of our time. A pope reminding us that poor people are not the enemy, but those to whom we are obliged. He’s speaking truth to the power of a ghastly international banking system. Francis has likened the Vatican court-like mentality to a form of leprosy. The real question is whether he can forge a new system of justice for the Vatican. The canon law tribunals run by cardinals, always forgiving cardinals, are archaic and unable to prosecute bishops or religious superiors for negligence. Changing that ancient system is the pope’s challenge. I know certain people advising Francis, not well, but enough to get background interviews.

As for ominous notes near the end, the inference by one interviewee that the Mafia might assassinate a pope because of money-laundering reforms at the Vatican Bank has to be taken with a grain of salt. International consulting firms are going through those accounts; the bank has been awash in favoritism from Italian clerics to relatives and friends of friends. Cardinal Tarscio Bertone, the former Secretary of State, resisted halting that. Benedict’s great mistake was not firing Bertone. I think anyone watching this film will understand why. Well, Francis replaced Bertone. I think it would be hard for any future pope to go back to the Italian ward-heeler mentality that pervaded the bank until Benedict, to his credit, established a reform commission four years ago. The pity is that Bertone didn’t back him up.


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